It's one of the few iconic moments in professional cycling that doesn't completely lose its value after you've seen it happen several times. Men who were gliding along elegantly on their bikes only moments before are suddenly reduced to walking awkwardly up one of the famed climbs at the Tour of Flanders. Their cleats and shoe covers make it impossible to complete the task graciously, as photographers move in to capture the moment they already knew was coming. The Tour de France may have fields of sunflowers, but Flanders has riders walking up narrow cobbled roads. Pictures of this yearly occurrence serve as an iconic reminder of the race's difficulty.
Luckily, during last year's race, I was able to see an unusual, though perhaps more iconic moment in the race.
Seeing the Tour of Flanders go by at several places along the route can be a difficult thing to do. If you want to see it in significant locations, you have to know where to park, how to get to the next location, and what route to take, since nearly every car in Belgium is will be involved in a race to get to the next climb. This requires knowing a significant amount about local roads, traffic patterns on race day, and (at least in our case) the willingness to break several laws, and get tickets for breaking said laws.
Last year, I was lucky enough to be with people from Ridley for the Tour of Flanders. They took pride in knowing the best routes to take in order to get from one ideal viewing spot to the next. At one point, we left a crowded area with numerous cars which were all headed in one direction. All the cars came to a complete stop, but we headed in the opposite direction. Clearly we knew a shortcut the others didn't know about. We drove down a desolate two-lane road, cutting through small Belgian towns, in order to catch the race one last time before the finish. I stared ahead, and saw no cars for miles upon miles. For the first time that day, there was no traffic, no crowd noise, just the hum of the road. Suddenly, I saw something unusual up ahead. Someone was on the road.
We were nowhere near the race, and yet what I saw was a skinny, orange-clad man on a bike. It was a rider from Euskaltel-Euskadi. He was riding quickly, but his pedal strokes seem forced. As we approached him, I could see that he was covered in dust, while his Tour of Flanders race number and jersey pockets were ripped, and unceremoniously flapping in the wind. We slowed down as we passed him, and could now see that his face was covered in caked-on dust. He looked disoriented. His team issue bike, bottles, helmet and glasses looked oddly out of place all of a sudden. Why was he there, miles away from the race, aimlessly riding through the Belgian countryside? Had he been left behind by the caravan after a crash? Had he been told to cut through using this road in order to meet up with the team bus or a team car? We signaled through the car window that we could give him a lift. He waved us off angrily. He looked like an animal going to the slaughterhouse. It was disconcerting to say the least.
To look exhausted and defeated on the course of the Tour of Flanders as you walk up a climb could be seen as picturesque, or indicative of how hard the race is.
To look exhausted as you win, or at least finish the race, is similarly worthy of a picture that shows the tenacity required to race at that level.
But too look that way as you ride through a random Belgian town, far away from the race with no hope of winning (or even finishing), made the difficulty of the race much clearer. The race had broken him, but he rode on, miles away from the course. It made no sense at all.
As we moved away from him, I reached for my camera. I thought about taking a picture, but couldn't bring myself to do it. I thought it was best to let him suffer in peace. We sped away.